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Papal Bulls as “Justification” for Slave Trade

Updated: Dec 23, 2021

Let's start with a little historical background to set the tone and understand world events at that time. The kingdoms of Portugal and Castile (Spain) had been jockeying for position and possession of colonial territories along the African coast for more than a century prior to Columbus' "discovery" of lands in the western seas. On the theory that the Pope was an arbitrator between nations, each kingdom had sought and obtained papal bulls at various times to bolster its claims, on the grounds that its activities served to spread Christianity.

In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the Papal bull Dum Diversas, granting King Afonso V of Portugal, the right to reduce any "Saracens (Muslims), pagans and any other unbelievers" to perpetual slavery.

This approval of slavery was reaffirmed and extended in the Romanus Pontifex bull of 1455 (also by Nicholas V). This statement from the document clearly shows Pope Nicholas V intent;

"Thence also many Guineamen and other negroes, taken by force, and some by barter of unprohibited articles, or by other lawful contract of purchase, have been sent to the said kingdoms. A large number of these have been converted to the Catholic faith, and it is hoped, by the help of divine mercy, that if such progress be continued with them, either those peoples will be converted to the faith or at least the souls of many of them will be gained for Christ."

These papal bulls came to serve as a justification for the subsequent era of slave trade and European colonialism. So King Afonso V, together with Pope Nicholas V, became key figures in the history of the transatlantic slave holocaust.

The bull Romanus Pontifex is an important example of the Papacy's claim to spiritual lordship of the whole world and of its role in regulating relations among Christian princes and between Christians and "unbelievers" ("heathens" and "infidels"). This bull became the basis for Portugal's later claim to lands in the "new world," a claim which was countered by Castile (Spain) and the bull Inter caetera in 1493.

Together, the Dum Diversas, the Romanus Pontifex and the Inter Caetera came to serve as the basis and justification for the Doctrine of Discovery, the global slave-trade of the 15th and 16th centuries, and the Age of Imperialism. (Click here to downlaod PDF copies of these documents)

The Papal bull Inter Caetera
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